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What's Wrong With Modern Games?

Are modern PC games any better than the early efforts that came out around the time of the Sinclair ZX81 home computer? or even more worrying... are they actually worse? Here is a list of 12 problems, myths and misconceptions about the modern PC games biz, seen through the eyes of an independent games developer and lifelong gamer.

1)"Minimum requirement: 70 Terrabyte Hard Drive."

A quick check shows that an install of Deep Space Nine: The Fallen weighs in at roughly 702MB, over double the size of my Operating System. To most keen gamers this might not seem much of an issue, after all we live in a time of 30 gig hard drives, so who cares? There are several reasons:

Firstly hard drives will, and do, fill up quickly. Games compete for our disk space with ever bigger applications, huge operating systems and ever growing MP3 collections. Sure we can uninstall and reinstall our games when we don't play them, but wouldn't we rather have space for all of our games, ready to play, rather than just ready to install?

Secondly our hard disk drives may be measured in gigabytes but RAM, both on the video card and the motherboard, are still measured in MB. A game with 400 MB of textures often suffers huge load times between levels, and even worse, major disk or RAM thrashing during gameplay. Ironically this slowdown hits at the worst possible times, just as we enter new game areas, or new enemies appear in our field of view.

Thirdly, a big game normally has a big demo. You can look at 30-100 MB or more for some demos. Sure, there are a few lucky hardcore gamers out there with cable modems, but the rest of us have no chance of downloading the latest Mechwarrior4 demo. As a budget game developer, I have 2 games selling shareware right now. One is pretty average, and 1.8MB, the other is pretty good, and 10MB. Guess which one generates more sales?

2)"The New age of Interactive sexism and Macho manliness"

I don't watch much cheap TV. Badly acted stereotypes don't strike me as having much entertainment value outside of parody. The problem is these stereotypes extend to the game world too. Duke Nukem looked bad enough, but with modern games hours of sound files he can sound cliched too. You can only listen to so many chisel-jawed marines shouting "Lets kick some alien butt marine!" before you start to cringe physically at every line of dialogue. The obsession with butch chiselled American marine figures is almost (but not quite) as embarrassing as the blatant sexism in the characters in Tomb Raider and Sin. Like most people over the age of 15, I am pretty embarrassed to be associated with games (and game imagery) like these.

3)"Bugs are part of the experience..."

Nothing spoils the sense of immersion more than a bug. When enemy soldiers walk through each other, or your character gets his arm stuck in a wall, it's like a powerful arm yanking you back into the real world. Gamers seem to put up with it, but imagine how many copies of say, the last Harry potter book, would be returned in disgust if pages 32 to 44 were printed upside down? Imagine how annoyed people would be if they were told you could fix this by pulling out the pages and sticking them back in. (This style of advice is often to be found in the troubleshooting pages of games publishers web sites...).

Crash bugs and visible artifacts are one type of bug, but lazy coding that results in hideously long load or startup times is sometimes just as bad. Worse still is the omission of obvious features. Pressing ESC should always get you out of the current screen. How many times have you played "Hunt the quit key" along your keyboard?

I'm aware of the standard arguments, I've gone through what seemed like never-ending bug-hunts on my own games, sometimes chasing bugs that seemed impossible to fix, or even to reproduce. There are two reasons I can imagine a world without bugs though:

a) It's in the publishers best interests. I do get bug reports about my games. They are a pain, take time to fix and reply to, and for everyone who emails a bug, you know you lost a sales on two dozen who gave up without mentioning it (have you ever reported a bug to a publisher?) The one game I have that went through exhaustive QA, has not had a single bug email, and also happens to be my biggest seller by far. Coincidence?

b)We all know it's possible. Found any bugs in Age Of Empires 2? I play it every week and have done since it was released. So far my bug count is zero. It CAN be done. It's just very hard work, but if you don't like hard work, change your career now.

Bugs can ruin otherwise great games. failing to fix them, or fixing them after the event is not good enough. If i want to QA for Eidos, I'll apply. until then, sell me finished products thanks.

4)"Sequel Mania"

Hands up who is excited about Black & White, or maybe Halo? now hands up who is excited about Tomb Raider XXXVII? Sequels are probably the most depressing example of money-driven publishing. Tomb Raider sequels, and games like it, rely on people buying them as safe presents for people who they liked the first one. Sadly this doesn't mean the follow-on games are any better. There are exceptions, AOE2 vastly outshines its predecessor, and Mechwarrior3 is also a huge improvement. The problem is these examples get vastly outweighed by the vast sea of Command and Conquer sequels.

5)"Tech Demo 2: The revenge"

When is a game not a game? When it is a tech demo. Have you noticed many mirrors in games recently? or perhaps very shiny floors? To what extent is this needed for reasons of atmosphere and realism, and to what extent is it just an excuse to show off groovy new video card features like environment mapping? If you want to see jaw dropping computer graphics, download graphics demos from the web. Games are games, they are about fun, not selling video cards. How appropriate for games to be given away with the hottest cards, in many cases they are blatant adverts for them, nothing more.

6)"Coming soon..."

Are you sick of being told about a game three years before it's released? Even more scary is when people consistently talk about games like Black & White as though they are the "Game of 2000".Somewhat ironic considering the game isn't even in Beta as I write this, 3 days before the year 2001.

I don't mind knowing whats coming up a few months in advance. Why buy game X now when better game Y is coming out in a month? as long as game Y DOES come out in a month, or even come out at all.

Babylon 5 combat simulator? forget it, after all that hype the game was ditched and never seen again, ditto Mortyr as I recall. What was the point of all those interviews, previews, screenshots et al for Max Payne, when even that game got canned? How many pages of the latest games magazines are given over to coverage of games that will get dumped? Aren't you curious as to what games do NOT get any coverage at all because the big publishers pushed news of 'soon-to-be-binned' projects?

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